Master the Craft Step One – Getting past the Camera

Forgive me, I don’t intend it to start this series of articles with a rant, but I do feel the need to vent a little at this early stage and point out that somewhere along the line that ‘we’ (thats the collective we as photographers) seem to have lost sight that it is the ‘image’ that matters and not the camera (which is just a tool) that made it. Perhaps most importantly, its an observation that just because a photograph was made with the latest camera doesn’t make it a good photograph! In fact, the opposite holds true most of the time. Almost universally the current wave of photographs from the latest cameras that adorn our favourite virtual social hangouts (and latest camera news websites) are the latest form of pixel drivel.

Photography is about photographs. It is not about cameras and memory cards.

I want to make an observation that runs the risk of offending the odd person (you cant make an omelette without breaking a few eggs). You see, I have noticed a general down turn in recent times in the quality of photography I am seeing across the internet. I am speaking generally here, and confine my comments to those images I see predominately gracing the pages of social media channels and those websites that espouse camera news and reviews above actual image making. Oh, I am seeing all the latest cameras being used and abused to produce these images, but they are being used to produce imagery that is at best banal in the vast majority of cases. It is as if we are supposed to believe that all you need in your hand is the latest camera system and your photograph is instantly elevated to ‘celebrity status’. What utter nonsense.It seems to me that with every new camera or lens announcement that spreads like wildfire across the pages of the internet that there is an increase in the hype, hyperbolae and (lets call it what it is) ‘fanboysim’ associated with the latest piece of ‘kit’. Frankly, I am pretty tired of it. This hype that manufacturers (and a great many ‘You Tubers’) spew forth with every new camera announcement is designed to do nothing more than sell boxes and gain subscribers. It is an insidious vitriol that has become monotonous, predictable and even nauseating. It is frankly a cancer that is detrimental to quality photography and its high time someone called them out for what they are. They do nothing to improve photography and serve no one but themselves in the process (are you still with me?).

Let me be crystal clear on this point. If you want to improve your photography and create better photographs than the vast majority (not hard) all you need to do is follow three steps. If you follow these steps I guarantee your photography will improve exponentially and that you will produce far better images than the vast majority of people out there who loosely call themselves photographers. Follow the steps and you will Master the Craft. It has been my experience that the vast majority out there foolishly believe that their next camera purchase is all they need to improve their photography and that their current camera is somehow holding them back from producing better photographs. They could not be more wrong. A decent camera is all you need to make a great photograph. After that, no amount of money thrown at the problem is going to improve your photography and falling into the never ending upgrade cycle will do nothing but empty your bank account. The problem of how to improve your photography is not one you can solve by throwing money at. You are going to have to do some actual real work instead. Sorry.

With that said, lets be far more positive and talk about the three steps you can take to vastly improve your photography. Step one is to learn how to use the tool you already own properly. And, this is very important, educate yourself on what makes a good photograph; thats Step Two. But, of even greater importance, you need to seperate yourself from the emotional investment in your own work; and thats Step Three. Let me give a very clear and blunt example of what I am referring to in Step Three:  Just because you (or me) travelled to the other side of the planet to make our photograph, doesn’t make it a good photograph! In fact, our emotional investment in our travels makes us probably the worst person to make the call on the quality of the photograph. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Lets take this step by step. Step one is the easiest of the three steps and is to learn the tool you already own. Before I go any further, I will stop myself right here and say that if you think the latest camera that was just announced or released (or that you need a sensor with more dynamic range or more pixels) is going to improve your photography then you need to immediately stop and rethink what it is that makes a really great photograph. If you fall into this category then there is nothing I can do to help you. You are stuck in a never ending upgrade loop that is going to continually empty your bank account. Your only hope to break out of this vicious circle is going to come in the form of a revelation. You have to open yourself up to the reality that its not the camera that matters and realise its you that is the limiting factor. Problem is, most people who are stuck in this loop are completely oblivious and believe wholeheartedly that what I am writing applies to everyone but themselves.

If I take myself as an example, there is a very good reason I shoot with the Canon EOS 1DX MKII and the EOS 1DX before that.  You see, I ‘know’ the tool’. I know it so well that if you handed me my camera I could set an ISO, f-stop and shutter speed blindfolded in less than 2 seconds (heck I can change focus cases and customise each case blindfolded, without even thinking). I can do this, because I have mastered the tool. I have a starting ISO, f-stop and shutter speed on both my 1DX MKII cameras. I know exactly what they are set to when I pick them up, and I know exactly how to change them in milliseconds without even thinking. My fingers know exactly where each button is and exactly what it does. Its muscle memory for me to change the settings on these cameras. Do you know what happens when operating your camera controls becomes muscle memory? It frees up your brain up to be creative! You are no longer constrained by the technical limitations of your brain and fingers. Your brain is free to create. You can be an artist and NOT a technician. This is so important that I am going to say it again…. When you master your camera you free yourself from the boundaries of any technical knowledge you require to operate the tool of your trade. Your brain can focus 100% on creating the photograph instead of worrying about any technical limitations that impede the quality of your photography. You are now truly free to create. You can focus on the play of light in front of you and on capturing the magical decisive moment (it exists as much in Landscape as it does in Wildlife and Street photography). At this point of the development of your photography you have transcended the technical boundaries of your camera and you are now only constrained by your ability to create (thats Step Two). Step three we will come to later as its a necessity to understand once you master step one and step two.

I can hear the masses now.. I know my camera they are chanting! (pitchfork in hand). But how many out there could truly set their camera controls blindfolded without even thinking about it. How many could even turn on the camera and attach a lens without thinking? Truly knowing your camera means it becomes an extension of your arm and hand. You don’t have to think about using it in any way. It is merely an extension of your body and nothing more than something you put to your eye before you press the shutter. Its not a party trick to set your camera controls blind folded without having to engage your brain. Its an absolutely essential skill to get past being a technician and to start creating great photographs. Next time you stop the car because you see something you want to photograph ask yourself at what point does your brain focus 100% on creating the image and not on cameras or equipment? Is it when you first saw the potential photograph? When you step out of the vehicle? When you finish setting up the camera? The answer is it should be before you even saw the potential. Your brain should be creating and thinking about composition, light and the image all the time when you are out making photographs. Getting the camera out, setting it up and making the exposure should be something that you do without even thinking about.

Just as an aside: Over the last week or so I have fielded quite a few questions about the new Canon mirrorless system asking what my thoughts are, when will I buy one and will it replace my current 1DX MKII cameras. To cut to the chase, I will likely not be purchasing a Canon mirrorless R system in the foreseeable future (and I have played with a pre-production sample and the new 24-70mm f2 lens). There are a number of different reasons for this decision; not the least of which is the limitation of five frames per second – which is just too slow for wildlife and the unanswered question over its capabilities to deal with extreme cold. More importantly, though is that the camera offers absolutely nothing that is going to improve my photography. Sure, it offers me a small weight saving and a few extra megapixels (which I don’t need) over my 1DX MKII cameras, but frankly that isn’t worth the learning curve of a whole new tool, let-alone the cash outlay. If I was to invest in this new camera my photography would likely degrade until such time as I came to grips with the new tool and mastered the new camera. That is something I am only willing to accept if there is an obvious advantage in the long run and quite honestly at this point I don’t believe there is. With that said, I do very much like the ergonomics of the new mirrorless system and it is the first mirrorless camera I have picked up that actually felt good in my hand.

To close out Part One of Getting Past the Camera it is important to recognise that it is possible to make a brilliant photograph with pretty much any camera (even one more than five years old!). The technology has matured to the point that the camera is in virtually every single case no longer the limiting factor in anybodies photography. We have more megapixels than we need and we have more dynamic range than we need. We have cameras that focus faster, shoot faster and are capable of taking more photographs than ever before. Modern cameras are simply no longer the limiting factor in anyones photography. Understanding and accepting that a new camera will not improve your photography is a necessity to actually improving the quality of your photographs. Once you accept this fact you can get on with learning and mastering the tool that you already own. And as an added bonus you just saved a bunch of money!

In Step Two of Master the Craft we are going to talk about educating yourself on what is a good photograph. It might seem a simple thing, but you would be surprised how many photographers out there have no idea what makes a great photograph. Part two and part three are sort of linked, but we are going to deal with them separately as Part three is more about feelings and emotion where as Part two is more about education and understanding.

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